Final Week As A Mostly Free Man

Word finally came in that my teaching career will start on Sunday, September 13th! Life has been pretty laid back with so much free time. My routine for the first half of the week was as follows:

  1. Wake up (Obviously. Not really sure why I felt the need to include this.)
  2. Catch up on the goings on of Western world via Internet and phone
  3. Get breakfast (always pho)
  4. Read/watch a movie
  5. Get lunch (trying a new place every day)
  6. Read/watch a movie/have a snooze
  7. Go for a walk
  8. Go to the beach (usually with Day)
  9. Get dinner (also with Day)
  10. Read/watch a movie
  11. Go to bed

Any routine that includes “Go to the beach” is a pretty good routine if you ask me.

I’ve also taken ample opportunities to explore Dong Hoi on foot. In the next couple of weeks I’ll do a walking tour of this sleepy beach town.

This week took me to 7th Heaven, a Western-style restaurant run by expat and veteran Doc and his wife. 7th Heaven offers all manner of food: traditional Vietnamese dishes, Thai food, and Western delicacies like cheeseburgers, steaks, and chicken fingers.

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Oregano french fries. Goodness do I miss oregano.

Doc and his staff are gregarious, so he and I dove into our life stories rather quickly.

I’d like to take a quick break to mention that everyone has shown me incredible warm-heartedness and hospitality, expat and Dong Hoianese alike. Store and restaurant owners are starting to recognize me, say hello, and give me small but meaningful and noticeable special attention. Expats are eager to help me navigate the city and Vietnam in general, whether I need to exchange money, book a train ticket to Da Nang (we call this foreshadowing in the literary biz), buy soap, or just need reassurance that it’s okay to sometimes feel lost. If you’ve been following closely, you probably noticed that this has been a common thread throughout my trip. Still, I wanted to briefly shine a spotlight on how comforting it is to fly 9000 miles across the world and experience the same level of kindness and virtuous folks found on every corner in New Knoxville and Columbus.

So anyway, back to Doc. Doc grew up in Michigan. We moved past this potential hitch in our relationship after some friendly jabs; Doc graduated from Louisville and has a nephew at Ohio State. Doc and his wife, who is Vietnamese, moved to Vietnam a few years back to work with Agent Orange victims. His mother-in-law and wife are originally from a little village just outside Dong Hoi, so they built house on her property. Doc is a talented artist (check out a few pieces here) and uses profits from pieces he sells to build houses for those affected by the toxic defoliant used during the war. They opened up their restaurant a few months ago and have been wildly successful thanks to their customer care and tasty food.

Beside my indulgence of French fries and getting to talk with Doc, the biggest event of the first half of the week was the celebration of National Day. For any French scholars or world history fans, you know well what this is. For everyone else, National Day is celebrated on September 2nd (a Wednesday this year) as the day that Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam’s independence from the French colonialist in Hanoi. National Day is celebrated by a massive march to the same square from which Ho Chi Minh read the historic document. Much like the U.S., different places in Vietnam have their own cultural celebrations.

National Day in Dong Hoi was, to be frank, nearly indistinguishable from most other days. I saw and heard some partying the night before, and the day of brought larger family dinners in the streets. And the beach was slightly more crowded than normal:

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 “Crowded” Nhat Le beach. A huge brawl broke out about a half hour after I took to this picture, so Day and I ended up ducking out early.

Besides that, the day came and went like most others.

Friday was when the news came that I won’t start teaching until September 13th. A tad disappointed in the delay, but you know what they say: When life gives you lemons, take a trip! So that’s exactly what I’m doing.

I was in the Tree Hugger Cafe, which I’ve decided is my favorite place to hang out, when I got word of the delay and that I could take a trip. As much as I would love to take a trip up north to visit the other teachers, the time I had and their work schedules would have made it difficult to have the visit be worthwhile. With this in mind, I immediately asked Anna, Tree Hugger’s German owner, about where I should take my first solo trip.

Here we return to the point about the kindness I’ve experienced. Anna immediately snapped into action. She showed me different maps, took me thoroughly through different options both geographic and cultural, and flexed her encyclopedic knowledge of the hotspots of Vietnam. She even ended up booked my train tickets and waived her typical ticket-booking fee.

I settled on taking a trip to Da Nang and Hoi An, two cities about a seven hour train ride from Dong Hoi. I spent most of Saturday booking accommodations and researching the cities. Like any well-worn tourist destination, the Internet hosted no shortage of diverse opinions on the must-see spots in the two cities. After a few overwhelming hours of scouring myriad online guides and reading TripAdvisor reviews and my trusty Lonely Planet and NatGeo books, I headed back to Tree Hugger to pick up my train tickets. Thin, the young co-owner (at least I think he’s a co-owner? Maybe more of a manager?), handed the tickets over and asked how long my trip was.

If Anna’s knowledge of those two cities was encyclopedic, Thin’s was like a human version of the Internet. He had a keen combination of knowing both the must-see spots for anyone and knowing specifically what a young person might find fun. He gave me tailor-made (another foreshadowing clue!) recommendations, a couple tourist maps, and confidence that the trip will be successful. We sat together for over an hour discussing restaurants, beaches, museums, and transportation.

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Here we are critiquing the Dong Hoi section of my Lonely Planet guidebook. One of the authors of this version stopped by the Tree Hugger a few weeks ago for a quick interview with Anna, so they might be in the updated version!

As soon as this meeting concluded, another meeting started of which I was an impromptu guest. Enter: Stephanie. Stephanie is a teacher at Quang Binh University here in Dong Hoi. She’s about halfway through a ten-month State Department fellowship for ESL specialists. She, Anna, and Thin are working together to expand and develop the English Club for locals, mostly teenagers and young adults, looking to practice conversational English. Their idea, which is brilliant, is to have interested members give free tours of Dong Hoi, by motorbike or taxi, to any interested tourists. Many cities, like Hanoi and Hoi An, offer similar type services. The meeting reminded me a lot of some of the first student organization meetings I went to at Ohio State. A few people sitting around a table throwing out ideas, jotting notes, and finding productive ways to spend their limited free time while I sit in silent awe, soaking up as much as I can and admiring their passion, innovation, and careful planning. Talk about nostalgia.

The meeting made everyone hungry, so we went on a mini food tour of Dong Hoi.

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Rice noodles, a fish stock, fried noodles, corn chips (the Mickey Mouse ears), peanuts, bean sprouts, and tiny mussels comprised this delicious soup.

Sunday morning was the big day! I packed up my trusty backpack and taxied to the train station to begin my next adventure.

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Classic Dad hat.
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Pretty standard train.

The train ride was long. Watching the Vietnamese countryside roll by helped move the time along, but between you and me, I can only handle so much countryside. I grew up in New Knoxville after all. I passed the time more quickly by the classic movie/reading/having a snooze combo.

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Countryside.
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More countryside.
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More countryside.

Remarkably, the train arrived in Da Nang an hour early. Something in Vietnam happened early! I’ll never forget this.Despite the oppressive heat (I sweat from the time I wake up until around 8pm, it’s a nightmare), I wanted to explore as much of Da Nang as I could before dark.

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The new Danang Administrative government buildings. Most government and bank buildings lavish, especially if they’re new.
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Admin building at night.
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A guillotine at the Da Nang museum. I stopped by mostly because entrance was cheap and had A/C, but it turned out being a fascinating little place. Da Nang was an important U.S. and South Vietnamese airbase during the war (home to China Beach, if that rings any bells), and a section of the museum was dedicated to describing the war from the North Vietnam perspective. Always interesting to learn about a conflict from the other side.
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One of a few beaches in Da Nang.
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Famous Da Nang landmark Dragon Bridge.
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Banh my (or banh mi, depending on where you are) is as essential to Vietnamese cuisine as pho. Baguette slathered with various sauces and stuffed with various meats and veggies. Many more banh mi stands in Da Nang than in Dong Hoi. Like pho, everyone does banh my a little differently, so I’ve enjoyed trying different types.
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Men in gathered around a game of xiangqi, or Chinese chess. I saw several of these games going on during my walk.
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Also saw lots of modern gaming cafes.
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Another example of a lavish new building.
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Catholicism is practiced by just under 7% of the population, so churches are a fairly common sight.
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Seems like the opposite of what most people want.

All said, I estimate I walked about twelve miles through the city streets before returning to the hostel for a beer. I met Maya, a Spaniard and fellow solo traveler who has been on-and-off traveling for the past three and a half years, and got lots of tips on what to see and how to handle the whole solo backpacker lifestyle.

This week was my third out of the U.S., away from family, friends, and the comfort of a familiar life. If I predict anything firmly at this point about my journey, I would be lying to myself. Every day of these three weeks has had its lion’s share of ups and downs. I will see or here something familiar that will trigger a reminder of home, and feel intensely isolated from the world I left and catch myself wondering if I’ll ever fully adjust in the year I have. The next moment, however, I will fall into a lively conversation with a stranger-turned-friend and find myself wondering if I’ll ever want to leave.

For about the last quarter of my life, I’ve worked really hard at maintaining strict control of my emotions, and this strategy worked well because I was rarely faced with tragedy, hardship, or any scenario that didn’t have a clear solution (except the Ohio State loss to Virginia Tech in 2014. I wasn’t sure if I would ever be happy again after that game. Thankfully that whole thing worked itself out pretty well). I’ve found that varying factors in the transition has left this control much more difficult to maintain here, so to more of an extent than I have in years, I’ve relinquished totalitarian control and let mind and emotions wander more freely. Through this I’ve found lows that are low. But, more importantly, the highs I find mean so much more. Mundane activities like ordering a coffee, finding a store, or meeting someone new take on new meaning and can be the source of newfound uncontrollable excitement and sense of high achievement.

Despite the lows, I’ve not once had the serious desire to return home. The challenges I’ve faced are huge opportunities for fast and serious emotional and personal growth. Feelings of profound exhilaration are steadily replacing feelings of staggering insecurity. And again, I’m only three weeks in, so I know I’ll experience a continually ebbing and flowing of thoughts and feelings. But feeling confident and comfortable enough to plan and take a weeklong trip in a foreign country (can I still call it foreign if I live here?) by myself in one day reminds me how much growth I’ve had in less than a month and sets high expectations for the rest of the adventure.

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3 thoughts on “Final Week As A Mostly Free Man

  1. I caught up with your blog this morning. Terrific writing and honesty. You should be starting your job today so best of everything to you. You’re a brave adventurer. Thanks for sharing. Blessings.

    Like

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